Politics & Government

How SC GOP Gov. Henry McMaster used Trump and the economy to win election

Buoyed by recent job growth, falling unemployment and support from the president, S.C. voters Tuesday handed S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster a victory that he has sought for years.

“With the help of God almighty,” McMaster promised Tuesday night to harness “the greatness, the goodness and the power of the people of South Carolina.”

McMaster secured his first full term as governor, handily defeating the Democratic candidate for governor, state Rep. James Smith of Columbia, in Tuesday’s election.

The 71-year-old former lieutenant governor became governor in 2017 with then-Gov. Nikki Haley resigned to join the Trump administration as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

McMaster previously ran for governor in 2010 but was defeated by Haley in the Republican primary. He was elected as lieutenant governor in 2014.

Now, McMaster’s running mate — Travelers Rest businesswoman Pamela Evette, a 51-year-old accountant and political newcomer — is set to become the state’s lieutenant governor in January.

Tuesday marked the first time South Carolina’s candidates for governor and lieutenant governor were elected as a team.

The pair promise to continue to strengthen South Carolina’s economy through lower taxes, fewer regulations, a leaner and more efficient state government, safer schools and enhanced workforce development efforts.

“We are going to have economic growth and prosperity unlike anything we’ve ever seen because we have the best team in the United States,” McMaster said.

GOP revelers packed a ballroom in a Columbia hotel, cheering as news of McMaster’s early lead flashed on the screen.

Jobs governor

McMaster pitched himself as the jobs governor. He argued voters are better served by keeping him in office, pointing to job creation and companies looking to expand in the state.

Companies have promised to add some 24,000 new jobs and invest $8 billion in the Palmetto State since McMaster assumed office. Meanwhile, the state’s jobless rate has dropped to its lowest in 50 years.

But while joblessness fell, labor participation has decreased, income growth has been sluggish and employers have struggled to find skilled workers, Smith and his running mate, state Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, D-Lancaster, argued in debates and on the campaign trail.

Smith, 51, said the state is performing below it’s potential, pointing to rankings near the bottom in measures of education, health care and poverty compared to the rest of the country. He portrayed McMaster as out of touch with South Carolinians’ needs, including expanded affordable health-care options, better roads and bridges, and improved education.

On the campaign trial, McMaster insisted economic growth will cure many of South Carolina’s ills.

“It’s hard to argue we need to change course when people, you know, have jobs,” College of Charleston political scientist Gibbs Knotts said. “And, if they’re unemployed, there’s jobs available. It’s a state people are moving to and not pouring out of. That’s not to say the state doesn’t have problems, but there’s still a lot of positives in South Carolina.”

Critics, though, including from within his own party, have faulted the governor for failing to provide leadership, citing his vetoes of a gas-tax increase to fix a cash-strapped, crumbling roads system and money to replace aging, fire-prone school buses.

Both vetoes overwhelming were overridden by the GOP-controlled General Assembly.

McMaster and Republicans attacked Smith over his votes to raise taxes, largely tobacco and gas taxes that were supported by a majority of GOP legislators; his support of abortion rights; and his ties to national Democrats, trying to blunt the Democrat’s efforts to woo Republicans and independents dissatisfied with the GOP under President Donald Trump or uninspired by McMaster.

“The economy is good. And that makes it hard, period, to unseat an incumbent,” said Republican political consultant Chip Felkel of Greenville. “You’ve got to make them unacceptable or make them somehow damaged goods, and offer a clear alternative.”

Smith failed to convince voters that McMaster was “unpalatable, and he let himself get defined as a tax-and-spend liberal, which I think is inaccurate,” Felkel added.

A passive Smith campaign

Little known outside Columbia and trailing in fund-raising, Smith still was introducing himself to voters in October. He also waited too late to throw jabs at McMaster on education, infrastructure, health care and tariffs, Felkel said.

Had Smith jabbed sooner, “that may have actually gotten him some traction,” he said. “(Smith) hasn’t run an aggressive, hard-hitting campaign as there was an opportunity to do so. He started hitting McMaster hard too late.”

Instead, Smith relied heavily on his military service as part of a campaign strategy of appealing to pro-military Republicans and independents in a largely red state.

Fellow Democrats declined to criticize Smith’s campaign.

“You’re talking about a guy with an incredible military background and a story of sacrifice,” said former state Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, a friend of Smith’s. “You’re taking about somebody who served for 22 years (in the General Assembly) with a record of bipartisan leadership. You could not ask for a better candidate, and the same goes for his running mate.

“We had a very strong ticket,” Lourie said. “However, you were also running against” a Ronald Reagan Republican with a deep Southern drawl who is well-known and liked across the Palmetto State.

“(P)eople find Gov. McMaster to be a likeable, sensible guy,” Lourie said. “I like him. Henry offends nobody. He’s a true gentlemen.”

While dogged during the GOP primary over his decades-long ties to an indicted political consultant, McMaster managed to avoid the State House corruption scandal during the general election, in part because Smith, too, had ties to that consultant.

McMaster also had a large financial advantage — outraising Smith by $4.4 million in the most expensive race in S.C. history, according to the latest campaign disclosures — and the backing of a president who remains fairly popular in the state, particularly among S.C. Republicans, Lourie said.

“It was just too much to overcome to convince people that a change was needed,” he said. “For a Democrat to have won, all the stars would have had to line up perfectly.”

But Jamie Harrison, the former S.C. Democratic Party chairman who now is an associate chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said Smith “has laid the seeds for something much better, for a better future for South Carolina, which is crucial.”

Trump, hurricane boost

McMaster was the country’s first statewide elected official to endorse Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential bid, and he leaned heavily on his close relationship to the president to prevail in a contentious GOP primary runoff over Greenville businessman John Warren, a political novice.

McMaster constantly reminded conservative voters of his close ties to a president who, he said, valued South Carolina and would listen to his concerns. The governor said he has bent Trump’s ear to protect the state from tariffs and its coastline from offshore drilling, voicing his concerns to the president directly, with mixed results.

A pair of hurricanes this fall also hindered Smith, according to political observers. Hurricanes Florence and Michael put McMaster at the center of 24/7 news coverage that depicted the Columbia Republican as taking charge, getting people evacuated and securing federal support for storm response and recovery.

Voters across the state saw that McMaster was capable of doing the job of governor in a major crisis. Meanwhile, Smith was recalled to active duty with the S.C. National Guard during Hurricane Florence. “He was completely off the radar,” Felkel said.

Capstone to decades in SC politics

Tuesday’s win serves as a capstone for McMaster’s almost four-decades-long political career.

McMaster has been U.S. attorney for the state, S.C. attorney general and chairman of the S.C. Republican Party. From 1993 to 2002, McMaster oversaw the GOP’s ascendancy in a state that had been dominated by Democrats since Reconstruction, starting with Republicans taking control of the S.C. House in 1994.

“No one in South Carolina has been to more gymnasiums and diners,” said Katon Dawson, who took over as party chairman after McMaster.

“He would practice law all day long, get in his car and drive two hours to speak to nine people at a Republican meeting,” Dawson said. “He built a party from the ground up — going to those meetings and raising money in difficult times, and moving the party forward as a conservative party and turning it into a conservative brand.”

That brand clearly resonates with most S.C. voters.

“Now, McMaster has an opportunity to leave an impact,” Felkel said. “He’s gotten the golden ring. He’s grasped it now on his own. ... And, hopefully, he’ll feel inclined to take bigger risks than he was willing to take after he assumed the office over concerns of winning a gubernatorial primary.

“There are a lot of challenges in this state that require bold action.”

S.C. governor

With 2,260 of 2,261 precincts reporting

Henry McMaster (R) — 912,045

James Smith (D) — 769,768

SOURCE: Associated Press
Reporters Jamie Self and Maayan Schechter contributed to this article. Tom Barton: 803-771-8304, @tjbarton83

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